(The Guardian) Pope Francis is 80 on Saturday – the age at which cardinals must retire from the electoral college, which will choose the next leader of the world’s 1.2bn Roman Catholics. Will Francis also go at 80? In the past, popes ignored the watershed. They went on until they died. But Benedict XVI changed things when he became the first leader of the Catholic church to resign in more than 500 years. Francis has indicated that he might retire too. It is vital, not just for the church but the world, that he does not.
The two popes before Francis were conservatives. Between them, John Paul II and his successor, Benedict, set the public tone of Catholicism for more than three decades. In just three years, Francis has gone some way to hauling the church back towards the centre. But the ideological right is increasingly fighting back. Their private criticism of the first pope from the global south is turning to public dissent. Now is not the time for Francis to have innovative thoughts about institutionalising papal retirement by stepping down.
Francis is not the liberal the secular media sometimes paint him. He takes the traditional Catholic line on abortion, contraception, gay marriage and women priests. And yet his positions can be more nuanced than the right can tolerate. Gay people have felt welcomed by his famous “who am I to judge?” remark. He has invited transgender people into the Vatican and physically embraced them. He has opened the path to fuller inclusion of divorced and remarried Catholics with the church. He has set up a commission to investigate the possibility of women deacons, which many see as the first step to female priests. And, at the recent 500th anniversary of the Reformation, he acknowledged that Martin Luther had a point about spiritual corruption within the Catholic church.
All this – together with his sweeping reforms of Vatican finances, his work to remodel the bureaucracy known as the Curia, and his moves to empower the wider church and rid the papacy of its monarchical status – have gone down badly with traditionalists.
Some of the men who became bishops during the previous 35-year conservative ascendancy have reacted with sullen silence, in what one Vatican veteran described as “passive-aggressive non-compliance”. But others have been publicly hostile or disdainful – and some are now openly resisting him. Just a month ago, four ultra-traditionalist cardinals issued a public challenge to the pope. They said that his ruling that, in certain circumstances, remarried Catholics might take communion could require a “formal act of correction” from the College of Cardinals. They published five dubia – doubts – virtually accusing the sitting pope of heresy: something without precedent in recent Catholic history. Those who rely on the internet for their information might be forgiven for supposing a civil war is raging inside the Catholic church. That is certainly what the “culture warriors” in the US – which is where many of the most ideological hardliners are to be found – want the world to believe. [More]